The Destruction of Higher Education Today

It was recently revealed how British universities are imitating the Premier League football in procuring star names in academia to boost their REF (Research Excellence Framework) rankings. First used in 2014 to assess the academic period of 2008 to 2013, the REF was to provide accountability for public investment in research as well as to establish “reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE [higher education] sector and for public information.” Yet, many of its critics argue that it places too much emphasis of extra-academic impacts of research which has no relevance to the quality of research. Others suggest that it increases mediocrity with the emphasis of these assessment are on impacts, not intellectual or academic value.  Add to this the creation of the managerial-bureaucrat within academia rose in British institutions by over one-third between 2003 and 2008, the end result is that working in British universities is having severe repercussions on the mental health of junior and senior scholars and even more negative effects on the qualities of learning.

Such policies should also be of great concern to those of us in the United States despite having an entirely different structure.  The REF in the UK, to quote one critic, has imposed “increasingly  ridiculous administrative burdens on researchers, inventing increasingly  arbitrary assessment criteria and wasting increasing amounts of money on red tape which should actually be going to fund research.” But such bureaucratization strategies are not limited to the UK since American universities have similarly seen a rise in the managerial class such that between 1987 and 2012, American “universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to the analysis of federal figures.” And like the UK in recent years, American institutions have incessantly courted star academics since the late 1980s which drove up university costs as the humanities became this area to access education with intellectual pop stars.

So is it any wonder that across the UK and the US there has been a crackdown on cheating, essay mills and companies offering homework help. It has become so dire a situation that now there are speciality law firms popping up to tackle the cases of cheating. And where REF has been used to keep teaching to a bare minimum while turning students into de facto clients in the UK, American students have been turned into the surveyors of their own professors where a professor’s ability to gain tenure is weighed heavily upon several factors, one being student reviews.  In fact, universities have been treated as if a business expected to rationalize why a certain number of students flowing through the doors and leaving with degree in hand.  Fellow scholars such as Marina Warner have been criticizing the system pointing out the country’s war against the humanities comparing it to ‘Chinese communist enforcers.  As universities have been turned into neoliberal education factories since the Thatcher and Reagan era, it is most shocking to see how universities vie for students, making written “postgraduate employment promises” such as the University of Law and the University of Northampton.

Ultimately, when you put the neo-liberalization of learning together with student-client, you have a disastrous scene of education all around. More and more lecturers are deciding to leave academia in the UK due to these conditions, exacerbated by the low rate of full-time positions and the impoverishing salaries of visiting or other part-time positions.  The increasing bureaucratic demands upon professors have meant that researchers are constantly scrambling for time as this framework “creates pressure and stress, producing a decrease in the quality of research,” according to Len Ole Schäfer, a post-doctoral researcher at the University College London who has researched this matter.  And in the process, in-classroom learning and outcomes falter as professors are left to choose between these mandatory bureaucratic processes or the pedagogy of their students.  And the scene in the US is no better as more and more learning is being put online and the role of professors is more and more being relegated to that of the bureaucrat

I started teaching in the 1980s when learning was still valued as an exercise in itself.  Some of my first experiences were teaching at universities in Latin America and it wasn’t until I taught at the Universidad de San Antonio Abad, in Cusco, Peru, where all eleven students and myself had to share the same single volume of each text in the library on reserve for a course on avant-garde theatre. There, I learned very quickly how to make use of minimal resources and the wealth of independent readings and in-class discussions of the material. Later I would teach at New York University whose vast film collection and one of the largest open-stack libraries in the country. The course structure involved a fair amount of weekly readings/viewings, a mandatory “position paper” where students analyzed these readings and visual artifacts, and then they were expected to come to class to discuss their perspectives in an open dialogue format.  Inevitably, the first few weeks I would encounter the many students who had never done such an exercise, some of whom were “flipped out” by being expected to assess materials instead of having me tell them what to think. Skip to many years later in the UK when I was told by one Head of Department not to have my students read or write.

Today, the university is becoming a job training centre which prepares students for a life in marketing, trading, and other highly needed areas without considering that the study of the humanities might just have merit on its own, or even that many jobs might not require academic study. Let’s face it, a considerable number of graduates today are working in the service industry making espressos, many barely able to repay their student loans. Where the managerial bureaucracy pushes professors into a very rigid structure, teaching is commodified as is research and scholars end up being sales agents for mandates outside their area of expertise. Similarly, students end up being quality control guinea pigs of how well (or badly) a professor has performed, a litmus test which is entirely illogical since anyone who has studied knows that learning is not about sitting in a classroom and having information dumped into your brain as if a refill of coffee. The university is now thoroughly liberalized and learning has taken the largest hit of all.

In the US there is no such REF system in place, but student reviews of professors are troubling to many as it turns the classroom into a popularity contest rather than a space of learning.  And similar to the British system, professors in the humanities are being told to lessen the reading the writing assignments, ultimately under-preparing students for success and being fashioned into a cruise director or camp counsellor as the are handed a mandate they didn’t sign up for.

Today we we need to understand the dangers to the neoliberal setting of university education and ask ourselves if maybe we need to reassess what students are being taught in order to get back to learning and more solid pedagogical approaches that abandon the student-as-consumer model.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com